On The Fog of War

Caught in a Quagmire: Dammed if he do and Damned if he don’t!


No Easy Way Out of Iraq and Afghanistan

It was clear from his solemn and tortured attempt to explain the complexities of American policy in Afghanistan that President Obama is trapped between “a rock and a hard place.” On the one hand he is confronted with the “get out now whatever the cost crowd” on the left, and the chicken hawks on the right who will accept nothing short of “victory.”  Even if nobody has any idea what victory looks like.

Theirs is a world view that will lead to perpetual war, which in the present era of American diplomacy has tragically become our modus operandi.  It is clear from all that we know of President Obama’s long held beliefs about what constitutes an ideal world, and America’s place in it, that he would like all of the wars to just go away.  I have no doubt that in his heart of hearts he would love to “beat our swords into plow shares and study war no more!”

But then there are the realities of the international order and American national interests and security.  As President of the United States, the burden of crafting policies to address these vital issues falls squarely upon the shoulders of Barack Obama.  And his paramount objective must always be to do what he deems in the best interest of the USA. That’s what virtually all Americans demand – this writer included.

Naturally, there are going to be differences of opinion as to how this is best achieved.  As is his fashion, “No Drama Obama” is trying to steer a middle course between the two extremes of packing up and leaving right now – “declaring victory and going home” as Kissinger advised Nixon on Vietnam – or waging an endless war.  Yet there is no comfort zone to be found in the middle: with the left denouncing him as a war monger and the right accusing him of caving in to the enemy; thus betraying the soldiers who were wounded or killed in these conflicts.

The President has wisely ignored both extremes as he struggles to find the best way out the Mid-East quagmires. The ideologues on the left must understand that in the world of realpolitique there are often no ideal solutions to complex problems.  And whatever disagreements we may have with President Obama, a Republican takeover of the government would result in policies – foreign and domestic – that would be infinitely worse!  This is the reality we face.

It is enough to hear their constant mantra imploring the President to defer to the opinions of the Generals in making his decision as to when he should withdraw American forces for Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to get a pretty good idea of the mess we would be in if the Republicans controlled the Presidency.

In spite of their constant exaltation of the US Constitution, it’s all talk.  Most of them who shout the loudest don’t really know that much about what the constitution actually provides.  And it does not appear that they have a clue as to why the Founding Fathers placed the military firmly under the President’s control; who the Constitution defines as the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces.

It is clear that the architects of the Constitution intended to prevent a military caste from seizing control of the instruments of state power.  They were prescient enough to see that military rule would be disastrous because, among other undesirable features, the Generals could declare war.  And as the late great French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau observed: War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.”

What this statement means in essence is that war involves the entire society, most directly through military conscription and the great expenditures it requires; therefore the decision to wage war should be made by the representatives of the people not professional soldiers.  To place such power in the hands of Generals is like putting the hawk in charge of the chicken coop.  It is folly to ask military leaders if they believe they can win a war!  What can you reasonably expect them to say?

After all the billions the nation has spent on military hardware and paying a standing army; plus the endless training and practicing of war scenarios, when it come to the real thing you expect them to admit that they can’t bust the grape?  It goes against everything we understand about human nature.  It is a matter of professional pride to accomplish the mission.  And it is especially galling when the enemy is a rag tag band of “towel head camel drivers.”

The leaders on the US military will never admit to defeat at the hands of so inferior a military power.  That’s why to suggest that the President allow them to decide when we should end a conflict without accomplishing the mission, especially after so much blood and treasure has been wasted, would be a spineless abdication of the President’s constitutional prerogatives as commander-In-Chief. Yet the Republicans are more than willing to genuflect before the military brass.  And we will be perpetually at war if they are in charge.

Although he has been solicitous of the General’s views, and respectful of their advice, this President does not appear to be willing to abdicate his Constitutional powers over the military; and that’s very good news. So all of the hysterical chatter on the left, in which people are threatening not to support President Obama and the Democrats in the next election, is just so much mindless fiddle/faddle.

If you can’t live with the Democrats you will surely die under the Republicans; we must hang together or we will hang separately!   If anything is certain it is that this nation will go bankrupt if we keep pouring hundreds of billions down the sink hole of foreign wars. The American electorate is becoming conscious of the fact that while we are firing thousands of school teachers and other vital public servants, and the infrastructure of the nation is crumbling all around us, we are squandering the nation’s wealth on futile adventures in strange lands.

Hence I am opposed to continued American involvement in foreign military expeditions.  I opposed the Bush invasion of Iraq – See “The Prophetic Commentary on Iraq,” and I have called for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan – See “It’s Time to Quit Afghanistan” – and I argued against the Libyan intervention.  Not that I don’t think that Mummar Ghadafy is a murderous madman who ought to be toppled; I just don’t think that we can afford another war – see “On Operation Odyssey Dawn.”

As for the arguments of the left that the NATO force that is presently supporting the Libyan rebels is just another example of  “Western Imperialism,” or the hysterical Black Nationalist claim that “Obama is bombing Africa!, it is irrefutable proof of their moral and intellectual bankruptcy.  The “imperialism” motive is irrational, since the leaders who are being overthrown are the clients of the West!

And the suggestion that western intelligence forces are directing the mass uprisings that constitute the “Arab Spring” reeks of cultural chauvinism and perhaps racism.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the white racist rednecks in Florida who said “communist” were fomenting the Civil Rights Movement!  It is the same sort of thing,


However the thing that disturbed me about the President’s speech is his conception of America’s role in the world.  “Already this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world.” He tells us.  “Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face.  Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.”  To many Americans this sounds like a perfectly reasonable position, and when compared to the attitudes of the Republican candidates for President it seems like Solomonic wisdom.

These pugnacious Republicans are committed to endless foreign wars in a futile attempt to maintain the Pax-Americana envisioned by the neo-con crowd from the Project for a New American Century that seized control of American foreign policy when George Bush panicked after the 9/11 disaster.  When I listen to the Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachman or Rick Santorum talk I here echoes of the foreign policy prescriptions outlined in the comprehensive PNC policy paper “Redesigning America’s Defenses,” which served as the blueprint for getting us into the disastrous war of choice in Iraq, and the deepening quagmire in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, President Obama is much more restrained in his ambitions and would eschew the promiscuous deployment of American’s armed forces.  “We must chart a more centered course” he argues.  “Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.  But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.

When threatened, we must respond with force –- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.  When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own.  Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny. “

However I believe that even this vision is far to ambitious, and it shows the difficulty we face in changing the pattern of American interventionism that characterized American foreign policy in the twentieth century, when the US engaged in over 100 military incursions in foreign countries and many covert actions designed to shape the politics of other nations – including assassinations of foreign leaders with whose policies we disagreed.

If anything is certain, it is that this nation cannot afford to continue the role of planetary policeman.  We cannot afford it.  Since the greatest threat to American security is economic stagnation and a crumbling infrastructure, which threatens our internal peace and stability, it is imperative that we re-imagine our role in the world and radically revise our priorities.

If we devised a foreign policy more like that of China, which is based on non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, instead of the evangelicalism the presently characterize our foreign policy, we could reduce our military budget dramatically.  My goal would be to cut it by half!   If we envisioned our military forces as primarily for the defense of our homeland we could close all of the bases in foreign countries.  The cold war is long over; do why do we still maintain bases in Europe and Asia?  These bases are the signature of empire; it is reminiscent of the Roman Empire in the age of Pax Romana, when ‘all roads led to Rome.”

Like the US Empire, the Romans did not generally colonize countries like the modern European colonists who occupied and governed other peoples.  Rather they forced weaker nations to concede territory on which the Romans could build military bases.  Then they imposed Rome’s will on the ancient world from those military installations, just like the US did in the twentieth century – as the great British historian, Dr. Arnold Toynbee, was fond of pointing out. The weight of empire, the cost of trying to rule the world, helped to hasten the fall of Rome and will lead to the decline of America as the supreme power in the world if we continue down the path of continuous wars in foreign countries.

Fortunately President Obama understands this, but even he seems unable to envision a time when the US will no longer be the “anchor of global security.” That’s how he blundered into Libya, propelled by the intention of setting things right.  It is critical that we withdraw our soldiers from all of the present conflicts and return them to their barracks for our own good.  This is clear enough for any intelligent observer to see….unless your vision is clouded by the fog of war.


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 30, 2011

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